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Bread, Apples, and Honey

by Tim O'Hearn

There are a number of traditions associated with Rosh Hashana, which begins the evening of September 20 in 2017. Actually, almost every holiday, Jewish or Christian or otherwise, is accompanied by its own traditions. Since Rosh Hashana is a celebration of the new year, many of its traditions relate to that.

The rabbis hold that the holiday relates to the ultimate beginning, the sixth day of creation when man began to be. Although the Jewish people have multiple “new years,” this is the most significant, because it is the new year for man. As such, it is a time for a new beginning for mankind, just as January 1 is for those who use the Julian or Gregorian calendars.

Perhaps the best-known tradition for this holiday is the blowing of the shofar, of which a number of blasts are heard on this one day. I will not go into detail on that in this article, since I have written several articles about it in previous issues of Minutes With Messiah at this time of the year. Instead, I will concentrate on one of my favorite subjects: food.

The Code of Jewish Law lists a number of foods that should be eaten on the holiday. Among these are gourds (bringing to my mind pumpkin bread), cabbage or leeks, beets, and dates. These foods were chosen, apparently, because their Hebrew names sounded like Hebrew words appropriate to the holiday: proclaim, destroy, remove, and consume. The associated prayers ask that our enemies be destroyed, removed, and consumed. Another interpretation is that a new year is proclaimed, a time when our sins are cut off and removed far from us.

Better known at this time of year, though, are traditions involving bread, apples, and honey. These relate more directly, perhaps, to the holiday.

Bread is a staple of Jewish culture. It isn’t a meal if no bread is eaten. For the Sabbath and most of the holidays, except Passover of course, the challah is a braided loaf of leavened bread. Traditionally, the challah on Rosh Hashana is round. An obvious reason for this is that the years are cyclical. One year ends, a new year begins. The designation of a new year is a somewhat arbitrary convention, as the years continue regardless of what day you choose to begin them. After all, Rosh Hashana falls on a different day than Chinese New Year, which is also not January 1. Logically, one would even expect the new year to begin on the first day of spring, or winter. This holiday also celebrates God as king of the universe (melech ha olam in many Jewish prayers). A king requires a crown, and the circlet of challah represents that crown.

The tradition of eating apples is a little more obscure, perhaps. The fall of the year is when they normally ripen, and so they might be appropriate to this holiday. This tradition looks back to the smell of apples as the dominant aroma of Eden (although the fig, rather than the apple, is the Jewish traditional “forbidden fruit”).

Apples and challah are dipped in honey. This is simply looking forward to a “sweet” new year. Honey is the traditional sweet, long before sugar candies. Growing up, I was never much of a honey person, although that has changed. In New Mexico, though, you can’t avoid honey altogether. After all, the traditional dessert in a New Mexican restaurant is sopaipillas and honey. In this state we do have a long, although often secret, Jewish heritage. So maybe I will celebrate Rosh Hashana this year with Sopas and honey. Mix my Jewish and New Mexican heritages. Why not?